Sandra M. Gustafson on the 2016 State of the Union address

January 20, 2016
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“The Four Questions” by Sandra M. Gustafson

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On January 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered the State of the Union address known as the “Four Freedoms” speech. Then recently elected to an unprecedented third presidential term, Roosevelt had run on a platform that included the promise to “not send American boys into any foreign wars.” In the days leading up to his speech, Nazi Germany had begun a bombing campaign on the coal port at Cardiff, Wales, and the Roosevelt administration had announced the Liberty Ship Program to build freighters for the war effort. A few days after the address, thousands of Jews were killed in a pogrom in Bucharest, Romania, and over the next several weeks, anti-Jewish measures spread across Eastern Europe.

This was the state of things that prompted Roosevelt to articulate “four essential human freedoms” as a basis for a secure world: freedom of expression; freedom of religion; freedom from want, which, he explained, “translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants everywhere in the world”; and freedom from fear, focusing on dramatic reductions in armaments to eliminate the possibility of wars of aggression. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Four Freedoms became a touchstone for American foreign policy. Memorialized in a famous series of Norman Rockwell paintings, they were later incorporated into the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

The broad acceptance of the Four Freedoms does not mean that they provoked no dissent. Roosevelt’s call for freedom of expression and freedom of religion were largely uncontroversial, but his appeal for freedom from want and fear were received as partisan gambits intended to bolster the New Deal and advance a Democratic program. In later years, freedom from want came to define Roosevelt’s domestic agenda, notably when he called for a “Second Bill of Rights” to include employment, health care, housing, and education in his 1944 State of the Union address.

In the 2016 State of the Union last Tuesday, President Barack Obama presented the American people with four questions that resonate in some striking ways with Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. The form of this State of the Union address, whose difference from the typical “laundry list” speech was much emphasized, offers a model for the kind of renewed citizenship that the President seeks to promote—one whose sources I trace in Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic. Rather than tell the nation what to do, or explicitly articulate national values as Roosevelt did, Obama has attempted to frame a discussion around the core questions that have animated his presidency.

Obama’s experience as a law professor, well-versed in the Socratic method, was clearly evident when he offered these four questions for discussion and debate:

First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?

Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us—especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?

Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?

And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?

Capacious, timely questions, they offer important frames for discussion during this election year.

Three of Obama’s four questions arise from lack of consensus around the ideas of freedom from want and fear. This connection is clearest in the first question, where the phrase “opportunity and security” uses Latinate words to restate the absence of “want” (from Old English) and “fear” (from Old Norse by way of Middle English). Opportunity and security are words that emphasize process, and so they are well suited to inquiry. Underlying the question, “How do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?” is the assumption that there is general agreement that “everyone” should be given “a fair shot.” This framing invites discussion of whether the means to that end is a Second Bill of Rights, or some other set of policies. The President did not call for these values to be reconsidered but rather he sought to shore up an established consensus—one based on the wide popularity of Social Security, the New Deal program with the most sustained impact, and the success of later federal programs, including Medicare.

The second and third questions—involving technology and world leadership—highlight some of the most significant differences between Roosevelt’s day and our own. There is a striking gap between Roosevelt’s call for disarmament to create a world free from fear and the race to develop nuclear weapons that was already underway when he spoke. After the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, nuclear weapons quickly emerged as the iconic representation of how science and technology did not just serve humanity—they also threatened its extinction. Climate change now has even greater symbolic force in this regard. Obama’s exhortation to figure out how to “make technology work for us, and not against us” speaks directly to the challenge of harnessing modern forms of power that compromise human agency, including the capacity for effective governance. The excruciatingly slow response by world leaders to the climate change crisis highlights how technology threatens to overwhelm human capacities for response.

Implicit in the third question is the same focus on directing events, rather than having them direct us: How can American leadership be effective while relying less on the military? Obama described his controversial foreign policy as offering “a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power. It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.” He also evoked the “power of example,” particularly in connection with the need to resist Islamophobia, and he quoted Pope Francis’s remarks on tolerance in his speech to Congress last September, when the Pope said that “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”

Even as he extended Roosevelt’s freedom of religion to Muslims, President Obama largely ignored the way some groups—including many that are Catholic— have challenged his domestic policies on gay marriage and access to birth control and abortion as violations of their religious freedom. The closest he came to this theme was a reference to persistent disagreements over the Affordable Care Act, which are driven in no small part by provisions for women’s reproductive health. How does religious tolerance coexist with women’s agency and independence? Freedom of religion, largely uncontroversial in Roosevelt’s day, has become a source of profound conflict over social policy.

The fourth and final question—How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?—returns to a signature theme of the Obama presidency: the need to create a more constructive, less divisive politics. This theme has been a touchstone of his State of the Union addresses over the years, and it is one that he began to develop very early in his national career. As has been widely remarked, Obama came to national prominence in 2004 with a speech to the Democratic National Convention emphasizing commonalities: not blue states or red states, but United States. The focus on unity took on new dimensions in his March 2008 speech “A More Perfect Union,” which he began with the words “We the People”—a phrase that he used again in this State of the Union address. He went on to note that “Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people, not just some; words that insist we rise and fall together, and that’s how we might perfect our Union.” There is consensus about ends, he insisted again: “The future we want—all of us want—opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living, a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids, all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics.”

The President acknowledged substantive differences and structural barriers—many of them related to the outsize role of money, the consequences of gerrymandering, and the distorting effects of fragmented and conflict-driven news media—and called for trust building, compromise, and active citizenship. Cynicism and skepticism are easy, he observed. Real change is hard and requires what he called “our better selves,” echoing Abraham Lincoln’s evocation of “the better angels of our nature.”

For the last seven years, the national conversation that Obama had hoped to pursue about the appropriate roles for the private and public sectors has been overwhelmed by the cultural issues that he mostly wanted to sidestep. It was this post-Cold War conversation about economic models that he thought might bring Democrats and Republicans to the table. Instead, it earned him the label “neoliberal” from his party’s left wing, while the Republicans gave him the back of their collective hand. Meanwhile, identity politics has been resurgent on both the right and the left: there has not been such intense focus on matters of identity since the early 1990s.

Has the President succeeded in articulating the grounds of a new consensus that will permit “rational, constructive debates” about the four questions of economic justice, technological change, national security and global peacebuilding, and effective citizenship? There was a clear suggestion that a change in tone will require a shift in attitude—akin to what newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a return to “sunny ways” (ways that Michelle Obama evoked with a marigold-colored dress).

Religious rhetoric runs through the President’s address. On two occasions he invoked a spirit of “unarmed truth and unconditional love,” a phrase from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize address. These words amplify the President’s message and introduce a spiritual dimension to his vision, with the aim of creating a sense of common purpose. Like his rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the memorial service for the victims of the Charlestown shootings last June, these moments from the speech may help to bridge the religious divide and allow for the President’s consensus-building project to proceed. By presenting these questions now, and by infusing them with this spiritual element, he hopes to shape the 2016 campaign—and his legacy.

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Sandra M. Gustafson is professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic and Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America.

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